How long should I work and sweat and suffer to fulfill a dream before I just say it’s never going to happen? I was wondering that about the IRONMAN World Championship. If six tries weren’t enough, how could seven or ten or a hundred make a difference? I was ready to walk away from that dream until something slapped me across the face. It was the reason I needed to go back one more time.
That reason had nothing to do with winning. You see, I’d been gauging my merit in each of those six previous races in Kona on how I did against everyone else. And yes, the harsh reality might be that I didn’t have all the tools it would take to win there. But did that make me a failure? Was second place really the first loser? I needed to change the dream.
Winning would be great, but I knew I needed to go back to the Ironman with a much more personal reason and focus. I needed to go back with the purpose of figuring out how to race and not just survive. I had only been able to run the entire marathon twice, both on years when I wasn’t even in the hunt for first place. They were conservative efforts, safe efforts.
I needed to go back and give an effort that had nothing to do with “safe” but was nonetheless paced under the line that could lead to blowing up and collapsing. I had to go back and race the marathon. Regardless of where I finished I wanted to be able to complete the day knowing it was the best I could do.
One of the greatest champions in our sport was on the line that I spent six weeks that spring training on New Zealand’s South Island. Life was simple. Training was intense. I experienced a completely new level of preparation.
I was able to absorb a huge amount of training, more than I ever thought possible, in New Zealand’s uncomplicated environment where I was free of distractions.
My body gained strength, speed and endurance I’d never had before. But more than just my body was changing. I was feeling a peace inside when I thought about doing Ironman later that year. It came from knowing that I was finally doing the work the Ironman wanted me to do to have the greatest race I could. In the bliss of New Zealand I was laying the groundwork for a personal breakthrough in Kona seven months later.
October 14, 1989 came. My seventh IRONMAN World Championship was moments from starting. I was floating in Kailua Bay looking around at the sunrise and the water and the volcano to the east. I looked at the other athletes. They all seemed preoccupied with frantic thoughts racing around in their heads. I felt peace. That was a first for me!
The cannon sounded at precisely 7:00am as it had in all the other races I’d done in Hawaii. Dave Scott was just ahead of me. Those were perfect feet to hop onto. He knew how to pace yet race the Ironman. I couldn’t have asked for a better guide to follow.
We swam within one-second of each other. Dave then took control on the bike. I had no desire to push past the pace he was setting. He knew what was possible on the bike to set up an epic marathon. I was completely content to follow his lead. He’d look back every now and then trying to gauge what I was doing back there, how I was feeling. When he’d look, I’d drop my head down even further and sink lower into my aero bars. I didn’t want him to see my face. I figured it was better to let him make up his own story about how I was doing so that he’d pace his race his way rather than trying to get rid of me before the run. Our bike splits ended up just as the swim had: one-second difference.
Dave set a blistering pace the first 10k of the run through Kona. We were holding sub six-minute miles. We weren’t in the lead but we were moving up on those ahead. We crested the infamous Palani Road hill together and headed out for the meat of the marathon in the heat of the lava. Scott slowed, not from being tired but for budgetary reasons. Calorie absorption has an upper limit at the Ironman in Hawaii, and if you run over that ledge, there is no coming back.
We went through the half marathon side by side with a clear picture that Dave’s three-year-old course record would be incinerated. There was little sound on the course. We had a huge entourage of camera vans and officials surrounding us. None were saying a word. All you could hear was the drone of the motorcade and the squish of four sweat-soaked shoes hitting the searing pavement mile after mile.
Dave seemed to be getting stronger the longer we ran together. He surged, and then surged again. I barely hung on. He surged a third time. My mind cracked and my body felt like I was hovering dangerously close to having to walk once again. I couldn’t take it. “He’s too strong. I can’t do it. He’s going to win his 7th. I just want to quit!”
How could I do all that training and still feel like I was going to fall apart? How could I pace the race any better? If I have to walk again why even keep going? I was confused. It was like my brain was short-circuiting. I couldn’t even think or question or wonder about what the next step should be.
All my training built a delay between when my mind says “I’m Done” and anything actually happening in my performance. The delay switch that would have triggered the eject button on my race gave me just a moment of quiet. And in that singular flash of silence, my life changed forever.
I went silence. And in that moment of having my mind be quiet I saw the image of a revered Huichol Indian shaman from Mexico that I had seen in a photo of two days earlier in a magazine. His name was Don José Matsuwa. He was 110-years old. He looked both peaceful and powerful. He had a twinkle in his eyes like the spark of life showing from the inside out.
Peaceful and powerful! That’s what I’d been searching for in the race for six years. I’d never felt them both at the same time ever in Kona. I could be calm. I could feel strong.But both only came through huge effort and focus. It was like a math equation made up of emotions rather than numbers finally made sense.
Peaceful plus powerful equals surrender. Surrender equals full engagement regardless of the circumstance or the situation. Full engagement equals full potential regardless of the outcome. No regard for the outcome equals freedom every moment along the way. Freedom equals peaceful and powerful.
The race changed. Fear no longer had hold over me. The outcome was insignificant. The immediate moment at hand was what mattered, and that moment was monumental! I was with the best guy in the world! No one else was giving him a run for his money. There were still nearly thirteen miles left. It’s not over yet!
We stayed together, side by side with neither of us giving in. The moment of real truth was about to come as we neared mile twenty-four of the marathon. It was at the bottom of the last long uphill before you exit the lava and drop back down into Kona. I’d regained my strength. I was still running, but Dave was stronger than ever.
We each had our strategy. Dave knew he was by far a better downhill runner. All he had to do was hold pace and get to the top of the hill close to me and victory would be his. He knew he could run away from me going down Palani Road. I knew I was stronger than Dave on the uphill sections and had to open up a significant gap by the top and the right turn before Palani to have any hope of holding off his charge on the downhill.
There was an aid station that marked the last real chance to get some calories in before we started up the hill of truth. Scott got to the aid station a step ahead of me and reached to his right to get one last glass of fuel. I slowed just a tick to be able to pull in right behind him to get my final drink. Just as I started to reach for one last glass of Gatorade, something inside of me just yelled, “GO”.
I yanked my hand back and started to sprint. Dave was still negotiating the aid station volunteers and his glass of sport drink. I opened up a gap of a few feet before he looked back to the road. What he saw blew his mind. I was ahead of him and had already accelerated up to top speed.
No one had ever pulled away from him that close to the finish. Scott had always been the best from hour six of the Ironman through to the finish. But now, I was pulling away from him in an area that was his weapon. I hadn’t waited until the downhill. I hadn’t even taken a glass of nutrition before I made the move. It was a gap of a couple seconds, but it was the passing of the Ironman mantle. Now Dave was the one whose brain was short-circuiting. I was losing his grip on the part of the course that he ruled with an iron fist.
My cushion grew. A few seconds became a solid five and then an even larger breach for Scott to close. I made it to the top of that long uphill in the lead, but still didn’t look back. Now came the downhill, the final test. Dave would charge and make up time. I had no idea if my lead was enough. All I knew was that I had to get to the bottom of the hill and make the left turn onto the flats before he did.
My quads were ripping. I had silver dollar sized blood blisters on the arches of both feet that had burst miles before. The skin was gone and I was hitting raw nerves with each pounding step. My white racing shoes were stained red. I tried to ignore it all and just cover the downhill as fast as I could.
I got to the bottom of the hill and couldn’t hear Scott. I made the turn and then took the one look back I was going to allow myself before the finish. He wasn’t there! I couldn’t see him. For the first time in seven years, the first time in my career, I knew there was nothing that could come between victory and me.
I still had to cover the remaining mile or so. But I knew I wouldn’t cramp. I wouldn’t walk. I knew Scott could no longer catch me. I still had to make it across the line, but for the first time in my seven IRONMAN World Championship races I really celebrated. I stopped in the middle of the road for just an instant and said, “YES!”
Making the final turn onto Ali’i Drive was familiar. I’d rounded that point and gone on to cross the finish line five other times. This was my first time in the lead. This was my first time racing not just pacing. This was the first time knowing I’d truly been able to show the best that I had.
Until that right turn the day had been muzzled. I just tried to keep my emotions from going too high or dipping too low. Now I could let it out. I cheered. I smiled. I cried. Thousands lined the final stretch, all yelling and clapping, all knowing how many years it had taken me to be in that position. Everyone knew the pain I’d gone through and the disappointments I had to come back from. I embraced their joy. They embraced my effort. It was a win for all of us.
I won by the smallest of margins: a mere fifty-eight seconds. Both Dave and I shattered the course record. He broke it by over eighteen-minutes. I posted my best time by just under thirty-minutes. And I did finally race the whole day, even the marathon. My split that day of 2:40:04 stood as the fastest marathon for twenty-seven years.
I woke up the day after the race terrified that I’d just had an amazingly incredible dream but was going to figure out it wasn’t real. It wasn’t a dream though! I had won! I’d be the one sharing the stories of grit and gratitude about the race at the awards later that night. I realized it wouldn’t matter what day I woke up, that this was a dream that would never be taken away.
It was a day where two dreams were fulfilled. One was to win. That dream was made possible because of another dream that had nothing to do with winning. I just wanted to put together the race I felt I was capable of. And that dream came from the most unlikely sources of energy and inspiration literally moments before I knew I would have to walk once again: through the vision of a 110-year old Huichol shaman, Don José.
That’s not the stuff anyone is expecting to hear about being the turning point in legendary athletic stories. I knew that Ironman was so much more than the numbers though. Putting together a great day in Hawaii involved the human element, the things that can’t be measured or quantified, like commitment, fortitude, like surrender and quiet, passion and steadfastness.
Yes, it was an amazing, amazing day. I would be back, but for the moment nothing more was needed!